The recent post on “The Pope on Luther” led to a discussion of Luther’s views of Mary, in which noted Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong weighed in. (I am continually amazed at who all reads this blog.) He cited evidence that Luther had a relatively “Catholic” view of Mary early in his career, though after the Diet of Worms, in 1521. (The source of that evidence was somewhat confused, though, which the discussion helped to sort out.)
One of the issues was the “immaculate conception,” the Roman Catholic teaching that by a direct miracle of God the Virgin Mary was born without original sin. This is an interesting example of the Roman Catholic theological method, as distinct from how virtually all Protestants “do” theology. The teaching is not arbitrary dogma, or the exaltation of tradition, or an extension of Mary-worship, or “popish superstition.” Rather, it is a logical conclusion based on reason, as practiced by scholastic theology.
The chain of reasoning goes like this: In order to redeem the world, Jesus Christ had to be without sin. He certainly lived a sinless life. But he also needed to be without original sin as inherited from Adam. Jesus took His human nature from being born of the Virgin Mary, not having a human father. Somehow, though, He could not have inherited Adam’s fallen nature, with its inherent sinfulness, its genetic (we would say) disposition to sin, the accompanying curses of the Fall. Therefore, the mother of Jesus must not bear that fallen nature. She was conceived in the normal manner–not as another virgin birth, with which the doctrine is often confused–but, through a miracle, “immaculately.”
That Mary did not have original sin means that she also did not suffer under the curse of the Fall. This explains the tradition that she did not feel the pains of labor. It also explains the bookend Catholic dogma the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If she did not have original sin, she could not die, so must have been taken up bodily into Heaven.
These notions sound strange to Protestant ears, but they grow out of the Roman Catholic approach to theology, which supports and extends revealed truth with flying buttresses of reason.
Now one might believe these things of Mary without seeing her as a mediatrix between human beings and Christ, without praying to her, and without seeing her as a co-redemptrix. One could believe Mary was free of original sin and that she was received bodily into Heaven while still being evangelical, as Luther evidently did in 1521.
But the Protestant theological method, which derived from Luther, uses not reason as the primary authority but the Word of God, which is held to be the only authority in theological issues. The Bible does not mention any of this about Mary, which is presumably would, if, as Rome claims, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are fundamental and necessary dogmas of the Christian faith. Indeed, in the Magnificat, Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, the Mother of our Lord praises God as her “savior,” which implies that she too is in need of salvation. And she certainly suffered, which Eve in her pre-fallen state did not, as Simeon prophesied to her: “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
Further, we could argue that Christ’s incarnation and His redemptive work requires that He take upon Himself our fallen nature. He never sinned even though He shared our fallen flesh. Thus he became the Second Adam who freed us from the curse. (I know talking about the two natures of Christ can easily get heretical. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, and if I am, I recant.)